It was part political rally, part pageantry at New York's biggest public charter school lottery on April 23. Arcs of blue and orange balloons soared over politicians rousing 5,000 parents-only a fraction of whom would win a slot at Harlem Success Academy, the school of their choice, that night-to demand educational choice as a right.
Sheets of paper circulated so parents could write to their elected officials in support of charter schools. New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein invoked and Martin Luther King Jr., saying, "Parents don't want to know if it's public school or charter. They want to know, are my kids gonna get a shot at the American dream?" Malcolm Smith, New York State Senate Majority leader, said, "No one should tell you you can't have your child in that school where you think they'll get a better education. That is their right."
It was also part gambling hall, with 5,000 children's futures being decided by "the luck of the draw." Harlem Success Academy officials read names with the flair of people calling bingo numbers, as the winning parents rushed forward to claim one of the 475 "golden tickets"-one mom jumping up and down-and the losing parents left empty-handed.
Ivy League schools have higher acceptance rates than some New York City charter schools, since 45,000 students competed for 8,500 seats in New York City's 98 charter schools this fall, according to Jeff Maclin of the New York City Charter School Center. Despite the drawbacks of a secular focus, charter schools still outperform public schools. The 2007-2008 New York State Assessments found that nearly 85 percent of New York City charter school students met or exceeded standards in math, compared to 74 percent at city-wide public schools. In English, 67 percent of students met or exceeded standards compared to 58 percent of New York City public-school students.
As bipartisan support swells and charter schools grow in New York City-with 20 new schools added this fall-union reaction has shifted as well. Instead of focusing on getting rid of charter schools, unions are aiming to get involved in their everyday operation.
The parents who play the charter school lottery see it as a way to seek opportunity. Glenn Echevarria and his girlfriend, Beatriz Lucia Totoya, tried to get Totoya's 9-year-old son, Luis Caneta, into a different charter school in Brooklyn-Achievement First Bushwick Charter School. Totoya, a beautiful woman who speaks Spanish softly, and Luis came to the United States from Ecuador. Echevarria, an artist, was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican immigrants.
When we met at a little Mexican place in Brooklyn, Luis took his math homework into the restaurant and worked problems with a vengeance until he set down his book to eat. He spoke little English when he came to America, but he has graduated from the bilingual classroom already, partly because Echevarria and Totoya meet with Luis' teachers and assign him extra homework. When they found that Luis had to read 30 books over his fourth-grade year, Glenn said, "I had to make a deal with myself-Glenn, you're going to have to sacrifice an hour or more and put a book in his hand and have him read out loud." A postcard came telling them about Achievement First. They visited, loved the focus on college prep, and entered Luis in the lottery to attend there.
When they attended the lottery at Brooklyn College, Echevarria said, "Let me tell you, that place was packed. The news was there. . . . Other parents there, nervous and everything." Out of 411 applications, the school would accept only 84.
The charter school cause has a populist appeal both parties embrace. President Barack Obama has spoken in favor of charter schools-while at the same time joining congressional Democrats to deny school vouchers to Washington, D.C., parents, and sending his own his children to a private school. Still Malcolm Smith, also a Democrat, told the Harlem Success Academy crowd, "You can clap for the brother!" The New York City-based political action committee, Democrats for Education Reform, praises as education reform "heroes" like New York Gov. David Paterson, Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C.
Marcus Winters, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says, "The push for charter schools has now become so bipartisan and so powerful that it's hard for the unions to directly argue against them anymore." So they have changed tactics. Winters said the unions are making a "very calculated and very smart" move to insert themselves into charter school operations. The United Federation of Teachers actually runs its own charter school. There is now a push to unionize charter school teachers, with 11 charter schools represented by the United Federation of Teachers and a continued push for more to unionize.
Dan Lips, senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said charter schools are compelling because principals are unshackled by rules and red tape. They have more flexibility in hiring and firing, and teachers sometimes work longer hours and more days for better learning. But Lips noted that "once these types of things start being decided through the union process and collective bargaining, I think that those things would go away."
Public and charter schools often share space-and especially in New York, where space is a precious commodity, they fight over it. The UFT recently sued the Department of Education, saying they were simply erasing certain public schools from the zoning map and leaving parents with no option but to go to a public school in another district, or to attend the charter school.
UFT spokesperson Ron Davis denied that the union had changed its stance on charter schools: "We don't have a problem with charter schools but we want the charter schools to be held accountable for their academic results like regular schools are." He said that the unions wish charter schools would handle more challenging students like regular public schools do, not passing over special ed or English language learners: "Charter schools can sit back and say, 'OK, we'll take the cream of the crop.'"
Since the first charter school law passed in 1991, charter schools have grown to 4,600 schools serving 1.4 million students in 40 states, according to the Center for Education Reform. "The writing is on the wall that some change is going to happen," said Winters. Now unions want to have a say in the changes.
Echevarria and Totoya waited to hear Luis' name as Achievement First named the 84 accepted students. "It was like, 82, 83 . . . ," Echevarria said. But the school never called Luis Caneta, and now he will join the thousands of children across the country on waiting lists for charter schools. Totoya cried, but Echevarria said he reassured her, "He's still doing well. We have to keep supporting him wherever he's at. We got to make sure that we ask for teachers who are giving him every opportunity to succeed and all the help that he needs."
"I let her know that it's important for him to see how hard she's working for him. She's also trying to achieve her own dreams as well and that'll be something for him to take pride in," Echevarria said, adding that she would never "just receive a check" without working for it: "That whole idea of him working as hard as he can-as long as I'm in his life, that's what I'm here to do, to help be a positive influence for him and never allow him . . . to feel that he's less than anyone. That he's equal, that he has every opportunity like anyone else."
"It would have been great to have him be a part of the charter school," said Echevarria, "but we've got to do the best with what we have."